by Organic Connections staff
Most of us know where to find locally and sustainably grown food: at the local farmers’ market or a health food store. But much of the time, we have to go out of our way to get it. Wouldn’t life be a lot simpler if such products were available right at chain supermarkets, restaurants and our kids’ schools? Meet a remarkable individual named Melanie Cheng, who is well on her way to realizing such a vision for us all.
Cheng’s career didn’t begin in the local, sustainable food movement, but in technology as a writer and editor for technology giant Cisco Systems. After 10 years, she decided she’d had enough of the corporate world and took straight after her passion: the environment. At first as a hobby, she created a website calledOmOrganics.org to help spread the word about organic agriculture and its many benefits.
“It’s interesting because even today a lot of people don’t know about all the benefits from organics and the harm from conventional farming,” Cheng told Organic Connections. “You name it, every environmental problem touches agriculture. And so that was really how I first got into agriculture: hobby. In the process, in the non-profit world you end up crossing a lot of other non-profits who are working in and around what you are doing. In the San Francisco Bay Area there are over 150 different organizations working with food and farming, so I quickly learned that the problem with agriculture went much deeper than just organic versus chemicals.”
Interestingly, Cheng discovered that a real problem in getting locally and sustainably grown food into the mainstream wasn’t so much environmental as organizational. At the time, there was no real way for buyers and sellers to connect and do business. The solution seemed simple: to evolve an online tool to connect up regional buyers and sellers so that business between them could take place. In 2009 she went live with a new website, FarmsReach, to accomplish just that.
After the site was up, though, Cheng discovered another issue. In fact, she discovered a whole other layer of issues. “When FarmsReach first launched, we got a lot of momentum with signing up farmers and buyers,” she related. “But we soon discovered that there are also logistical problems that mean more than just connecting buyer and supplier. How do you actually get it there? And how do small or medium farmers serve the larger supply channels? Ultimately if you are talking about making change, that means getting regional healthy food into the bigger volume channels, and a lot of small and medium farms don’t have the capacity or the business savvy to know how to market themselves to the bigger buyers, or logistically they just can’t. The bigger buyers, such as distributors or large institutions, need large volumes on a consistent basis. No single small farmer can supply that kind of consistency or volume.” Continue Reading →